I learned about a year ago that my mother’s grandfather – Professor Allen Johnson – was a prominent historian of the very early 20th century. His books – including a Jefferson biography – are still available in print on demand format from numerous venues, including one publisher aptly named “Forgotten Books”. He died in 1930, hit by a car, and I don’t even own a photograph of him, but after reading his books, I have a bit of a sense of what he was like, at least inside his head. Funny, effortlessly knowledgeable. Probably interesting to talk to; at least that’s how I’ll remember him. Another great-grandfather was a prominent rabbi of the late 19th/ early 20th century, and his autobiography is also available on print on demand. He was outspoken and stern, and the woman who was his first great love was deported to Poland, many years after he last saw her. Another ancestor on my mother’s side, Jenny Slocum, left behind a slim volume, which was posthumously published privately in 1909 as Grandmother Slocum’s Stories, and which recounted my family’s earliest ancestors in America. According to her, my family fought on both sides of the Revolutionary War, battled pirates, and socialized with John Hancock. Grandmother Slocum was a good storyteller and as modest as it was possible to be, considering everything.
I finished writing my novel, The Ghosts of Watt O’Hugh in mid-2011. What I had written, I think, has great popular potential, but it is a literary Western historical fantasy novel, with a dash of magical realism. I am at the age of sudden heart attacks, and worse (and there is always the memory of that car that felled Professor Johnson), and so I didn’t want to spend the next year convincing agents and publishing houses, especially when there was another option available to me. I wanted to leave behind a little volume on the shelves for any descendants who might care to know me, as I now know my great-grandfathers and Grandmother Slocum, and my book would do all that – it reflects my voice and my view of the world. This tome on the shelf would make me feel better about myself at work, as I sat beneath those popping, buzzing fluorescent lights.
So out it went, and to my surprise and joy, I’ve gotten good reviews and even some nice sales. Suddenly I am an Indie author, rather than just a guy self-publishing a book for his kids.
I am part of the Indie community?
Back when I worked in a publishing house, the editorial assistants bought pizza and beer once a month (on a Tuesday night, if I remember correctly) and plowed through the “slush pile” (in our language, manuscripts sent in by unagented authors). During the time I worked there, I never came across anything that succeeded artistically. One or two showed some level of promise. (A book about an evil vulcanologist, by a guy named Smith, is one I remember as being particularly beautifully written.) But there was never anything actually good. I remember vividly a book about an Amish boy who comes to New York and falls in with a vast Soviet plot – hatched in a twisty laboratory under the city sidewalks – to turn women into lesbians and undermine the morals of the United States.
Someone really wrote that, and, yes, it was indeed as bad as it sounds.
So when I heard about the rise of Indie books, I wasn’t entirely enthusiastic. All those unpublishable slush pile authors now have a way to publish their books! I was concerned for the dead trees.
One of the biggest myths still prevalent in publishing is that if a book is self-published, it wasn’t good enough to be put out by a “real” publisher. Sometimes, that’s exactly the case. Sometimes the book in question is awkward, the prose is clumsy, the plot is convoluted or non-existent. But sometimes a book simply doesn’t fit into how the publisher perceives the marketplace. In their eyes, it’s unpublishable, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. If it’s ever going to reach readers, the writer has to publish it and promote it himself.
And this, I think, is exactly right. Since I’ve become aware of Indie books, I’ve read more than a few, and my reaction has ranged from, How could anyone have praised this on Amazon? to Why doesn’t a major publisher scoop this up, publish it and vastly improve the world economy? Suppose my little Watt O’Hugh is indeed good, but only a thousand people would really be interested? Well, then, those thousand people have an absolute right to read it, and I have an absolute right to give them the opportunity to read it, and now, finally, there is a means to market a book like mine.
Various media outlets have expressed varying degrees of support. Kirkus Reviews has embraced Indie publishing with wild enthusiasm. They read Indie books, write reviews (guaranteed) which they won’t publish unless said Indie author gives the green light. If they hate your book, you can put it back in your sock drawer, or publish it in an edition of one and give it to your mom. On the other hand, they’re the toughest reviewers in the business, so if they like it, you know you can put it on Amazon, and you won’t embarrass yourself. There are a lot of bloggers out there unwilling to review Indie books (sometimes abrasively unwilling), but there’s also a large, willing minority; for example, Sift Reviews, which (on scifi/fantasy self-published books) is perceptive, well-written and (when necessary) unsparing. There’s the prestigious Midwest Book Review. King of the Nerds reviews more than Indie books, but he does review Indie books with pleasure and insight. Babs’ Book Review, Earth’s Book Nook, and on and on.
A couple of websites recognize that Indie authors are, today, not only something artistically interesting and different, but also a community, and they embrace this new world. Covering only Indie books, Indie Books Blog includes a constant stream of Indie author interviews, under the slogan, “We’re all in it together” (and including the legal disclaimer that “Appearance here is not a guarantee of literary or entertainment quality”). The range of books, and the occasional prestige of the authors, is dizzying. Another place to turn for a whirlwind tour of Indie culture – and maybe for a glimpse of the Indie community’s future, is Free Book Reviews. This site includes both interviews and reviews, as well as Indie resources and advice, all curated by a one busy but cheerful editor with a huge TBR list. He really loves Indie books, and why not? Nothing holds these authors back. They write whatever they want to write, and this is a world, he believes, that is really worth visiting.
The point is, I guess, that there are many different reasons to become an Indie author. No one knows where this trend is heading, but I know where I’d look to find out.
Oh, and one more thing: please read my great-grandfather’s Jefferson biography. It’s really good. Only eight bucks in paperback, free on Kindle, and a breezy, quick read. Take a look at it here.